Ford Finally Discovers Silicon Valley

24 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ford Finally Discovers Silicon Valley.

PALO ALTO, Calif. The Research and Innovation Center positions the car maker more squarely in the high-tech ecosystem, where it can generate big ideas for the next generation of connected vehicles. — The earth-toned office building looks like any other here in Silicon Valley, an airy low-rise designed to let the California sun wash over engineers busy building the future.

Joining centers in Michigan and Germany, the Palo Alto facility will concentrate on the intersection between automotive advances and computing areas like mobility, natural interface development, consumer electronics, and big data. With Skype and Nest as neighbours, and equally voracious devourers of engineering talent such as Apple and Google a few cities away, Ford’s new lab will be using a familiar lure to attract talent as it jumps from 20 to 125 staffers in 2015. “If you give folks meaningful work, you retain them,” says Ford chief executive Mark Fields, who flew in from the company’s snowy Michigan headquarters for the office’s official opening. “The world is facing some big issues, among them the growth of megacities, a boom in the middle class who all want cars, and resulting air-quality impact,” he says. “We want to help solve these big societal issues, and if that’s not meaningful work, I don’t know what is.” Ford already has snared one tech veteran of note: engineer Dragos Maciuca left Apple to run the company’s new centre. Things like connectivity, infotainment, and autonomous features are as important to Ford as performance, styling, and safety, says Raj Nair, CTO and VP for global product development. “We’re increasingly seeing the car being the biggest consumer electronics device you can have.” And consumers used to smartphones expect their cars to fill the same needs.

The research center is another proof point of that.” Ford has had a research center in the area since 2012, but this represents a major uptick in the company’s presence. To deliver, Ford plans to build a team of about 125 software and user experience engineers, plus business development, IT, and marketing folks, by the end of the year. The move saves the Web giant from building and maintaining a network, and instead means it can resell service via Sprint and T-Mobile and gain new users without any marketing costs. The old office used to house only eight employees, while this new one currently has 20 engineers—mostly in software—and with plans to increase that number to 125 this year.

Some employees will be transferred from HQ in Dearborn, but most will be new hires, lured to the 111-year-old company with “very competitive” compensation, says CEO Mark Fields. Starting Sunday, all Un-carrier customers who have paid their wireless bill on time for a year will qualify for the lowest pricing on smartphones and tablets. Many of the big auto manufacturers have an office located somewhere in the Silicon Valley area as R&D labs to look into autonomous driving and car connectivity as well as form partnerships with local tech companies and universities. It also puts them where the talent is: It’s easier to see a young software engineer moving to San Francisco and working in Palo Alto than settling down in Grosse Point and commuting to Detroit.

Fields adds that while the 112-year-old automaker “will, of course, focus on selling cars and trucks, it’s important that we look down the road, to have one foot in today and another one in tomorrow.” Ford set up a series of stations scattered throughout its new offices to showcase work staffers are doing in five specific areas: customer experience, autonomous cars, big data, connectivity and mobility. This week, Microsoft introduced the HoloLens augmented reality headset, designed to act like a three-dimensional computer display for use at home or the office. Maciuca got his PhD at University of California, Berkeley back in 1997, where his thesis was on autonomous driving. “Autonomous driving has been 20 years out for a long time, now it’s a shorter time than that,” Maciuca said as he walked about the facility.

While such technology has long existed on a range of high-end vehicles from a variety of brands, Ford says it’s working to bring the feature across its full range. But Field’s doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think we’re behind,” Fields says. “I think it all comes down to having the right attitude, looking at trends, understanding what it means for our business, experimenting, and building businesses out of it.” To look at those trends, Ford is going to try just about anything.

More intriguing was a nearby demonstration showing how the automaker is using gaming technology to test algorithms that assist autonomous vehicles in identifying road signs and obstacles without being in the real world, where glitches can cause accidents. Reminiscent of a ride- and car-sharing program, the company-sponsored experiment — which, say, allows one staffer with a sports car to borrow another staffer’s pickup for a weekend — is meant to gain insights into instances in which accessibility trumps ownership. The point: If Ford’s cars eventually become part of big car-sharing fleets, this is an efficient way to move them without drivers to locations where there are needed.

For example, it’s a lot safer simulating dangerous situations in autonomous driving if you need to figure whether a car should hit a wall or a pedestrian. Others include tech that will help you find open parking spots and a car-sharing program for Ford employees because, well, no one could say exactly why. Ford highlighted some of its work in the connected home in its collaboration with smart thermostat maker and smoke alarm maker Nest, which is headquartered a few blocks away from Ford’s research center. And of course it’s working to improve voice recognition because, frankly, so much of it is terrible. “We’re gonna learn some things not only about potentially how to solve some of these transportation issues, but also, is there a business model in here for us that we can use to grow our business, beyond our traditional business,” Fields says.

Also announced at the event was news that Ford is forming a partnership with Stanford University to use its Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle for research. The opening of this facility also comes in the midst of a lot of activity among car makers and tech giants like Google trying to nail autonomous driving. It had to scrap My Ford Touch, which Consumer Reports called “unintuitive and trouble-prone.” A new Sync 3 system will replace it, but so far few outside of Ford have seen it.

Last week, Reuters reported that Google is in discussion with most of the biggest automakers in the world to speed up the process of getting self-driving cars to market by 2020.

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